Sunday, June 12, 2011

New Blog

Hi Everyone!

I know longer use this blog, but feel free to check out and "follow" my new one at:


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Blogging Hiatus...

Hi everyone!

Well, we are back on Canadian soil and have been since the end of June. We spent the better part of the summer in PEI and have recently arrived back in Edmonton to settle back into reality. A lot of people have been asking me what happened to our blog and to be honest, I dropped the ball!

I had three blog posts written which included details on our remaining time in Vietnam and Hong Kong. These were saved to our desktop which had to be wiped when the computer went nutty. You would think I would learn to back things up (which I do 95% of the time) after having the same thing happen to part of my thesis a few years ago!

Either way, I will try my best to capture some details of the last few weeks of our trip and beyond. I have thoroughly enjoyed blogging over the past year and will continue to do so every now and again. It may not include details of scooting around the mountains in Thailand, chillin' with Cambodian children, or running around a hostel in the nude because of monstrous spiders hanging in the shower, but there are always fun things to write about in the lives of Clement and Julia. Thank you all for following the blog on our travels. We loved sharing our stories with everyone and I'm still amazed at the detail that some of you remember! Stay tuned for another post in the near future...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"You and you make me, me, me, me, and me VERY HAPPY!!!"

Dalat is a city in the mountains known for its production of fruit, vegetables, rice, silk, flowers and coffee. We hopped on a bus for an 8 hour ride leaving behind the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City. When we arrived, it didn’t take us long to realize how nice the climate was; quite cool compared to any other place we’ve visited in SE Asia. This climate is ideal for growing and harvesting anything you can imagine. We learned that this area of Vietnam is one of the richest. The local farmers ship over 400 tonnes of fruit and vegetables to HCMC every morning, ship flowers all over SE Asia, and coffee all over the world. In fact, Vietnam is the second largest coffee exporter in the world behind Brazil and ahead of Columbia. We were both surprised by this and were told that 1 Kg of Dalat’s best coffee beans is worth $3000 US in the global coffee market.

We stayed in Dalat for three days and two nights. On one of the days, Julia and I jumped on the back of motorcycles and cruised around with the “Easy Riders”. The “Easy Riders” are a group of 82 men who take tourists around the countryside on the back of their motorcycles stopping along the way to teach about the local culture and farming. On this day, we visited yet another amazing waterfall, a silk factory, coffee plantations, a rice wine brewing station, local farms, a crazy house (which is compared to Alice in Wonderland) and had a great lunch with our guides (after they teased us about ordering monkey, snake and dog for us to try). It was a great way to see the area and learn about Dalat’s richness in a country that for the most part remains quite poor.

Another event that will remind us of Dalat forever is a family that we met one evening. As we made our way back to our hotel after a delicious Italian meal, we were approached by four young men. Hesitating at first, we engaged in a conversation once we discovered they weren’t trying to sell us something or rob us. Out of the 4 of them, only one spoke a little bit of English and he invited us to join them for a coffee. So away we went following them down little alleyways to their favorite local café. We had some good drinks, a few laughs, practiced our miming skills (it’s amazing what you can communicate with your hands!) and learned that our presence was making these guys “very happy”. Em, who spoke very little English kept saying you and you (Julia and I) make me, me, me and me (he and his friends) HAPPY!!! It was quite nice to see the smiles on their faces and in return, they made us happy as well. We tried to cover the bill once we finished our drinks and the owner of the café quickly told us to put our money away. In Vietnam, it is customary to treat those who you invite and as guests, we were expected to simply enjoy. It was quite a treat knowing how little these four young guys have and learning about how hard they work each day to help support their families. After our coffee, we were then invited to go to Em’s house for a cup of green tea…this is when the evening got really interesting. Within 30 seconds of us entering their home, at least 15 of his family and friends appeared to greet us. His mother was a precious woman with four kids aged 26 to 34; she was 65. We were made to sit down and sip away on some fresh green tea as they took many pictures of us, petted my arm and facial hair, and admired Julia’s white skin. It was hard to communicate with them but their smiles and laughter told us all we needed to know. They were so happy to have us in and show us how they live. For Julia and I, this experience was extremely eye-opening in seeing how these people live and how happy they are with so little; just a big happy family thankful for having each other, a house, some clothes, and enough to eat each day. They have already emailed us twice and have given us their address. We are going to put together a care package when we get home with some Canadian memorabilia to send to them.

Next we are off to Nha Trang; a beach town that has become one of Vietnam’s largest cities. We are looking forward to chillin’ on the beach. More to come…

Good Morning, Vietnam!

Just when you think it can’t get any better, it does! We arrived very tired in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) after a 16 hour bus trip from Siem Reap. There is nothing better to wake you up than this city! With a population of 7 million (9 million people in the city at any given time with business people and tourists) and 4 million scooters on the road, this city is the epitome of chaos! We had been given a good hotel recommendation while in Thailand, so we booked in for four nights at the Duc Vuong Hotel. We have never stayed at a friendlier place and we got free breakfast and “family dinners” each day. Also, every Sunday they have a “Family Party” for all guests. We luckily were there on a Sunday so we were able to attend the party. It was by far the funniest thing we have ever seen! There was a lot of bad karaoke and dancing which made for an eventful night. It’s as if the Asian people get high as soon as the karaoke machine gets fired up. They turn into superstars who clearly watch waaaayyyy too much MTV. They were pulling out provocative Britney Spears-type dance moves and loved being in the spotlight. It was as if they were performing to a crowd of 100,000 in a huge stadium. As per usual, the volume of the karaoke was also at that level. This night was one of our highlights so far and we have videos to watch if we ever feel like we need to smile or have a good laugh.

We spent one day at the Cu Chi Tunnels where we learned all about the war and much of Vietnam’s history. There remain over 200km of underground tunnels that were built during the war to protect the Vietnamese people from the invading Americans. It became evident how clever these people were/are, as they made various traps out of bamboo and other homemade weapons. Their best defense in our opinions, were the tunnels themselves as they were made to only fit the Vietnamese. Believe us, there is no way an American could ever fit inside these things! One tunnel has been widened for Western tourists to experience, but even that was claustrophobically small.

We spent the other days touring around the city and although Saigon is easily seen on foot, the heat was too much for us. Even with the bit of walking we did, we were dripping with sweat within the first 2 minutes and had little energy to go any further. We decided then, we needed to find another way to see the city. Vietnam is the only place in the world that still uses cyclos as a type of transport. A cyclo is essentially a rickshaw, but instead of being pulled behind the bicycle you sit in the front. We were approached by an older man and although we declined at first, his charm got the best of us and before we knew it, we were cruising amongst the 4 million scooters on a cyclo. Mr. Hieu was a sweet man from Mekong Delta. He moved to the city to drive a cyclo and we later found out that this was also his home. He whisked us around all day in the sweltering heat and spoke descent English. We had a great day seeing the sights, although had a few scary moments when we found ourselves on the highway! We visited many markets and temples, but the best part of the day was when we took Mr. Hieu out for a couple of beer. We chatted more and learned about his family, his village and his life in the Mekong Delta. We have come to realize that it’s the experiences like this that we cherish the most on our travels. Before parting ways with Mr. Hieu, he wanted us to write a note in his “book of friends”. He was so grateful, as were we to meet him and spend the day with him. The next morning we were walking down the street and all we could see what this orange baseball hat running towards us and waving. It was Mr. Hieu! He was so excited to see us, as we were him. We went for a couple of more drinks and he took us to one of his friends “bars”, where we shared some Saigon beer with 4 old Vietnamese men! Mr. Hieu’s friend was a shoemaker by day and a barman by night. As he says “Mr. Shoeman in the day, sell beer in the night”. We had a lot of laughs and stumbled home talking about the funny things that had happened.

One other highlight of our time in Saigon was our quest to find the most impressive motorbike. For those of you who have been to the city or have seen pictures; you know this is no easy feat! They carry everything on their scooters, but we wanted to spot “the best”. While we still don’t think we’ve seen the best yet, I’ll summarize just a few items that have made our shortlist:
• A fridge. The driver had the fridge strapped to his body and to the scooter. If it went down, he was going with it!
• A kitchen table and chairs
• A variety of animals- ducks, dogs, pigs, rats, etc.
• A bamboo ladder. If you picture a typical extension ladder that one would have in their shed, multiply its length by two and you would get this ladder. The best part of it was that he wasn’t carrying it length-wise, but width-wise. It took up at least 2 lanes of traffic.
• Tractor tires. Wrapped around their bodies while driving, obviously.
• Flat screen TV
• Toilet paper. We still haven’t quite figured this one out because they don’t really use toilet paper here, but we saw many scooters with a block (2 metres high by 1 metre wide) of toilet paper.

We haven’t even mentioned the number of people they fit on a scooter yet. We thought for the first couple of days that the record was five…we were wrong. We saw six! We got way too excited when we saw them fly by, but we knew then that we had a new record. I’ll try to explain how it worked. There were two adults (assuming they were the Mom and Dad) and four kids. One kid stood in the front and held onto the speedometer area. The Dad drove, two other children sat between Dad and Mom (who was on the back) and Mom held a newborn baby in front of her (essentially sitting on the other children’s laps)! It is hard to explain, but hopefully you can get the picture. The kids were all suited up with their shades and their face masks on and cruised by as if it was a normal occurrence…which is obviously is. Who needs a minivan when you can all fit on a scooter? We tried to snap a few shots but they were always driving too fast. We also got a scare when we saw a few tourists get their cameras snatched right out of their hands or off their bodies, so we kept our camera hidden for a lot of the time.

All in all, we loved Ho Chi Minh City. It is definitely at the top of our list in terms of cities we have visited around the world. The chaos and the people seem to work so well together which makes for a very exciting couple of days! We are now off to the highlands where we will check out the mountains and countryside in Dalat for a couple of days. We then plan to head back out to the coast to veg on the beach for a break from sightseeing and touring around.

Monday, June 14, 2010

More to come...

We have continued blogging but haven't been able to upload them. We will have them up in the next few days. We are enjoying our last two days in northern Vietnam before heading to Hong Kong for 4 days and then to PEI! Can't wait to see everyone so soon!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Captivating Cambodia

We apologize for the negativity of our last blog, but we had to tell it like it was! We consider ourselves to be quite laidback travelers and usually let things slide, but we just couldn’t do it considering our misfortunes in Laos. Needless to say, we were VERY happy once the Laos customs officers finally let us out of their country.

It sounds crazy, but my feelings instantly changed when we walked across the border from Laos and into Cambodia. My instinct amazes me sometimes and I knew then, that things would take a turn for the better. We had heard mixed reviews about the country, but we couldn’t have had a better experience. The people, the food, the landscape, the history, it was all amazing. As we entered the country from Laos, we had the opportunity to see a fair bit of northeastern Cambodia. We drove for about twelve hours through small villages and beautiful countryside. The poverty was clearly evident and seeing the many poor people was something very different from our experiences in the other Southeast Asian countries. We drove by large families living in small shacks along the side of the road. By a shack, I mean a small room with three walls and a flimsy roof made out of bamboo. There was no floor and no electricity so when night fell you could see the families eating on the ground by candlelight. Because there are very few developed roads in Cambodia, the drive wasn’t as straightforward as it appeared to be on the map. Also, it is the start of rainy season here, so many of the roads were covered in mud which made for slower travel. After a long travel day which also included many bumps and swerves to avoid hitting the odd cow, chicken, pig, goat, or child we arrived at 1am in Siem Reap. We had been given a brochure of a nice guesthouse to stay in so we got tuk tuks from the bus station (what looked like an open junk yard) to Ancient Angkor Guesthouse and crashed hard! The guesthouse was located just a few minutes walk from the Old Night Market and a busy “strip” of restaurants, bars, and shops.

We were still travelling with Nick and Lizette, our Dutch friends who we have been with since Chiang Mai, Thailand and after a rough few days getting through Laos and into Cambodia we chose to spend our first day relaxing and laying by the pool- yes, our guesthouse had a pool!! It was so, so hot that it felt more like a hot tub but was still very relaxing! So relaxing in fact, that we spent the better part of our second day in Siem Reap doing the same thing. It was an early morning the next day, as we got up at 4:30 am to be picked up by our tuk tuk drivers to take us to Angkor Wat for the sunrise. We had gone the evening before to see the sunset from a temple located on the top of a small mountain (about a 20 minute walk to the top), which was beautiful. We unfortunately, didn’t get to see a sunrise as they were too many clouds but the sight of Angkor Wat alone was breathtaking! The Temples of Angkor are spread out for kilometers and were all built between the 9th and 13th centuries. The sheer size, scale and detail of these ancient temples are enough to stop you in your tracks. We spent the day touring around the most popular temples which included Angkor Wat (the largest religious building in the world), Bayon Temple, and Ta Prohm, where the movie Tomb Raider was filmed. We thoroughly enjoyed our time at the temples and it is something that cannot be missed when in Cambodia.

The most fascinating (and very sad) part of Cambodia is its history. Cambodia is still in the early stages of recovering from The Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, was a communist political party that took over power only to initiate one of the most horrific revolutions the world has ever seen. Within four year (1975-1979), 2.5 million Cambodians were killed. Cambodians who were even the slightest bit educated (i.e. spoke a foreign language or even just wore glasses) were forced out of the cities and into the countryside to be tortured and executed. We were told that bullets cost too much, so instead of shooting them they would mistreat and neglect them leaving them to die from malnutrition and disease. Many locals that we spoke to were eager to share their stories of this “genocide” as it is now labeled, but there were also many who try to forget it ever happened and will not speak of it. I won’t elaborate on how this all ended in 1979 (involves Vietnam and other countries), but it was only in 1998 that Pol Pot himself died…yes, he lived for another 20 years! Interestingly enough, while we were in our room one evening the local news came on in English and the top story was that the trial for four of Pol Pot’s closest colleagues, who admitted their involvement in the genocide, was beginning the next day in Phnom Penh (capital of Cambodia). This was a clear indication to us of just how recent this “history” is.

We only spent a total of seven days in Cambodia and were only in Phnom Penh for one day while we waited to transfer buses. Had we had more time, we would have stayed in PP for a couple of days to visit the killing fields and S21, a school that was transformed into a prison during the Khmer Rouge regime. This is an experience that from other travelers, we have heard is very distressing.

We had a short but eye-opening experience in Cambodia and I know that I will return in the near future. There is a lot of opportunity to volunteer with the country’s children and elderly (of which there aren’t many) and I would love to put my nursing skills to use in a place with such beautiful people and stories.

Onto the ‘nam!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Let's get the hell out of Laos!!

Well, my guess is that most readers of our blog are likely wondering when I, Clement, would contribute to our stories. As Chief Editor (which has been an easy job as you can imagine), it’s time for me to begin typing. There’s no better time than now after our experiences in Laos. Julia strongly disliked the country…I will do my best to describe our experiences with as much of a positive twist as possible.
We reluctantly left Chiang Mai to head to the Thai border town of Chiang Khong. We truly had an amazing experience in Thailand and we aren’t sure any other country can beat it (although we’ve heard the best is yet to come!). We knew that we had three travel days ahead of us to get to Luang Prabang, our first stop in Laos, but had no idea it would be as painful as it was. After a six hour drive we landed in Chiang Khong where we stayed the night at a sketchy guesthouse. We could see through the wooden planks in the cracking weak floor. The creatures were literally crawling out of the woodwork so our mosquito net was our saving grace. An early morning followed as we hopped on a small boat to take us from Thailand to the Laos border where we picked up our passports with Laos visas and were on our way. You have three options to get from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang; either by bus, speedboat or slow boat. We heard that the bus was brutally long and uncomfortable and people die on a monthly basis on the speedboat so we opted for the third choice, the 2 day slow boat ride down the Mekong River. Floating down the Mekong River for a couple of chilled out days sounds pretty cool right? WRONG!
A slow boat it was. Let me first set the scene. There are no safety regulations on anything in Laos. In fact, Laos Airlines doesn’t even release their safety reports. The boat was way over capacity with at least 80 people crammed into a boat that has a capacity of about 50, and let’s not forget everyone’s luggage. We had to sit on wooden benches that were constructed at less than a 90 degree angle, meaning that we were essentially leaning forward for a total of 17 hours!! These wooden benches made church pews look and feel luxurious! The first day was an 8 hour ride. Thankfully, there was a bit of a breeze which helped to maintain our sanity. On the second day (9 hours) we weren’t so lucky….it was at least 45 degrees and there was no breeze whatsoever. Our bodies cooking under the tin roof of the boat, the little shade we had was not near enough to keep us cool. We have never had our patience and our sanity tested to that extreme before. We are really surprised that nobody went mental and jumped overboard…the stinky dead water buffalo floating down the murky brown river may have deterred them. Having said all this, we met some great people onboard and enjoyed a few warm BeerLao with them to make the time pass.
We were more than happy to have arrived in Luang Prabang and spent a relaxing three days there enjoying some beautiful waterfalls, markets and even the curfew. Lao people are so laidback (some would label them as lazy) that they have a law in LP stating that everything must be closed by 11:30pm. Even before that, the streets empty out and there is no one around except for the odd traveler wondering what the heck is going on. We left LP to head for Vang Vieng, which is famous for tubing down the river. We knew that we couldn’t go to Laos and not make a quick stop here, so we continued on with the group of people from the slow boat (about 10 of us) and spent a couple of nights there. Our group was comprised of 2 Dutchies, 2 Scotts, 3 Germans, 1 Canadian and us. We all became quite close and will continue our travels with some and others we will keep in touch with I’m sure. We all spent one day tubing which was really fun. At the same time it was also sad to see, as many young travelers party hard with no regard or respect for the Laos people, their culture or their land. Although drugs are illegal in Laos, they are available everywhere. You can order a “Happy Pizza” in most restaurants and instead of getting normal mushrooms on it they use magic mushrooms. Needless to say everywhere we went there were numerous travelers tripping out on mushrooms and/or opium. Not really our idea of travelling in SE Asia but we put up with it for a day and managed to have our own fun. Each bar you go to as you make your way down the river has a swing, a waterslide, or a zip-line and in some cases all three. I can’t imagine some of the injuries that occur along this part of the river as people stretch their limits of consumption making them feel invisible.

As we left Vang Vieng headed for Vientiane, we jumped on yet another bus for the 6 hour trip. It was quite uneventful for a change until we arrived in the capital city. We struggled to find accommodation and the heat was getting to us on that scorching afternoon. We finally settled in a hotel that we later found out charged us too much. Yet again, we were looking forward to getting out of there. We didn’t take in many sites in Vientiane as we were getting tired of the bad vibes passed on by the locals. We arranged for our Cambodian Visas and booked our “VIP sleeper bus” tickets to Pakse in Southern Laos…a ten hour trip overnight. We arrived to the bus station to have our tickets switched before we even knew what was happening and ended up on a shitty bus. This bus certainly didn’t look like the pictures we were showed during our booking. We had paid a premium for this “VIP sleeper bus”, another event adding to our frustrations. We woke up at 6 in the morning in Pakse to tuk tuk drivers shaking our feet on the bus to get our attention. At this stop, only the white people were made to get off as the locals watched us with grins on their faces. Our luggage had been put in a separate compartment and was out of the bus before we could wipe the sleep out of our eyes. At this point, we were forced to make a quick decision to go to either Tad Lo or 4000 Islands. We chose 4000 Islands, which proved to be a bad move. I could see how 3-5 years ago this place would have been lovely, but frankly, the locals have let it go to shit!! We were dropped off by the mini bus close to the Mekong River as the Islands are located near the south of Laos. This is where we caught the small boats to take us to the Islands and this little town literally looked like a DUMP…we’ve never seen so much garbage and the foul smells were enough to make your stomach turn. I must mention that by now, Julia had been violently ill for 4 days and her patience was short to say the least. I felt her pain as she struggled to find a toilet as the locals laughed at her. It must have been a nightmare for Jules and I’m so glad that she’s now back to normal.
I hope that I am not sounding too negative throughout this Laos blog. I suppose that we can sum it up to an overall bad experience in a place for which we had very high hopes. It is my belief that if the Laos people do not get their act together soon, they will lose one of their largest industries; tourism. In talking to other travelers, we certainly weren’t the only people who struggled to find the positives within our Laos visit. The Laos people have no concept of the long-term opportunities that tourism presents to its younger generations. Instead, we found the people to be very short sighted and out for personal gain. To top it all off, they almost didn’t let us out of their country because we didn’t have enough kip left to pay off the customs officers (they tried to tell us we owed them more money because it was Saturday and they were working “overtime”). After much arguing and trying to give them whatever we could (we would have given the shirts off our back at this point), they let us through and into Cambodia where we are thoroughly enjoying ourselves! Our blog from Cambodia will follow shortly!